by Apurva Bahadur
Introduction to the DGT spiral
The Dhulghat Spiral is a unique piece of track geometry of our railways.
At many examples on the Indian Railways, a track jumps over another by the use of a long ramp and a viaduct. However, I can think of only one location on a non-mountainous main line where the track loops a full circle with the pure purpose of matching the differences in altitudes between the two ends. There is no involvement of any other track - only at Dhulghat.
I am aware that spirals exist on the Darjeeling section including a one that loops twice, but that is not a main line, so in my list, Dhulghat is pretty unique.
Typically at Dhulghat, a northbound train arrives at a higher level from Akola, makes a right angle turn towards east and finds itself in the "Spirral" area. This is what the Hindi sign says - on both sides! The English sign is spelt correctly.
The most visible part of the Spiral is a 193 meter long steel box viaduct across a shallow valley. The viaduct leads the track to a circular path around a hill to the south. After circumnavigating the hill, the track arrives nearly parallel to the approach from Akola, but at a significantly lower altitude. This low level track passes below the first of the sixteen bridge girders towards Dhulghat station and Khandwa.
On the opposite run, the train from Khandwa passes below the first span, goes around the hill to gain height, crosses the valley over the viaduct and twists southbound to face Akola.
We have a picture of a works plate on one of the steel spans. This mentions the manufacturer as Jessops, Kolkata and the date is 1959. This date is correct as the Khandwa - Hingoli section was opened only in 1960.
Here is a view of the Dhulghat spiral - note the viaduct running east-west with the right end connecting to the spiral leading to the lower level track and the left end connecting to the track towards Akola.
The location of the spiral is around 2 kms south of Dhulghat station which itself is located 90 kms north of Akola or 84 kms south of Khandwa. This section is the meter gauge track run by the SCR"s Nanded division. Today, the section sees four northbound and four southbound passenger trains daily and as on MG tracks elsewhere; freight traffic does not run any more.
This Spiral had to be documented urgently - the shadow of the gauge conversion looms very close. The tracks from Purna to Akola are already BG. Akola to Khandwa is next, and there are rumors that the BG alignment would take a different path thus bypassing the spiral altogether.
The next year could be the last chance for anyone to watch the Dhulghat spiral in action.
In its heydays, this track laid a grand diagonal across India, joining places in Rajasthan to the southern tip of Tamil Nadu. The legendary Minakshi Express used to run for 1482 kms between Jaipur and Secunderabad on these tracks. Today, the rapidly expanding gauge conversion program has truncated the MG network only between Ratlam in the north-west to Akola in the middle of the country.
Planning for the trip
During the end of June 2008, a few of us did the Pune - Akola - Indore - Vadodara - Pune trip, purely behind exotic diesel power I should to add..
The idea for this outing was hatched on the 458B Akola - Ratlam passenger, as it passed through this section on its northward run.
I would desist from labeling this idea as "crazy" as we are yet to run out of imagination! With the super success of this trip, we are actually encouraged to do even wilder things which would be worthy of being calling crazy.
Many thanks for the enthusiastic and sustained response from our friends, who were all charged to do this trip and whose individual and unique contribution made this outing a grand success.
Based on our earlier experience, that the authorities in smaller places react badly to visitors, we had applied for permission for visit/photography/videography from the authorities in SCR.
We got a lot of support from a Senior Railways Officer from Mumbai (who is reading this.) and of course our buddies in Hyderabad.
The valuable permission arrived only on the morning our departure and it helped a lot to spread calm during minor ripples at location. Lesson leant = apply for the permission whenever you can - it is usually granted.
The journey to DGT
The trip for the Pune gang (Lalam, Satish [Gune] and Apurva) started on the evening of Friday 29th August 2008 in the S4 sleeper of the 2129 Azad Hind Express. The Mumbai and Nasik gang (Raghavendra, 'Old Man' Vivek and Sachin) entrained the S4 sleeper at Manmad. The last team members to join the S4 brigade were the two Venkats at Bhusawal ('Poochi' Venkat from Chennai and Venkatgiri from Bhusawal).
The 2129 stopped at Shegaon around 0530 hrs and we left the south side exit to find our prearranged Sumo taxi waiting for us. The vehicle was to take us to the location over rough, rural road and through wild life reserves.
As the dawn broke, we were standing at a roadside dhabha with the first chai of the day for both the customers and the dhabawallahs.
But wait, the tethered cow had to milked first, the dung patties had to be lit next and only then could the 'chai gilas' be offered. As is the custom in parts of India, the "lightly meetha" drink would be nearly sickly sweet.
We had three crates of water with us, which translated into 36 liters of the precious liquid - even on a temperate day like the 30th August, we could finish 2 crates easily between the eight of us.
We drove through Hivarkhed into Wan wildlife reserve. A system of gates and an entry tax enforces the rules here. We were warned to return by 1800 hrs if the gates were to be opened to let us out. After this point, the roads were largely dirt tracks. The first of the railway level crossings lay ahead which was joyously experienced by the IRFCA gang.
Asking for directions on the unmarked road junctions, we came across a local person who was coincidentally going to our destination. He joined our Sumo and guided us through the bewildering twists and turns inside the forest.
Getting to Dhulghat meant going through country road including fording of two shallow rivers and slithering through sections of deeply rutted mud fields. Soon, we went through another forest area gates and the second of the level crossing. We crossed streams and rivers on causeways and low bridges without retaining walls. All this while, the railway line ran close to the road, lifting our spirits.
Our guide from the villages pointed out to the long bridge on the left of the road and said that this was part of the "Char Ka Akda" (Devnagari figure of the number four).
Local people from Akola to Indore (earlier trip) all called the spiral by exactly that name.
Dhulghat Station, warming up to the spiral
Our first task after reaching the spot was to meet the Station Master of Dhulghat and hand over a copy of the SCR permission before starting the session.
The only way to get to Dhulghat station is by walking on the 91 meter long bridge on Kokari river - unless you like to wade through the knee deep water below.
The Dhulghat village is on the west of the river and the road leading there runs below the bridge"s span.
All of us walked across the river bridge over foot-wide steel sheets mostly tacked to the sleepers in the middle of the MG tracks. Some places, the tacking was off and the sheets lifted and groaned under the weight of those who are built generously .
I am never comfortable about walking on bridges/viaduct using the steel strip laid between the tracks and this was no exception. I am too old, too heavy and unbalanced to be doing this sort of a thing on a regular basis.
However one had cross this bridge or be content to remain on this side of the river - so here goes. As an afterthought, this river bridge walking was a good thing as one got used to walking on unsupported heights on a narrow walkway without giving in to panic or vertigo.
Mercifully, I did not have to walk on bridges with only sleepers across - that for me would have been very difficult to do.
Dhulghat station is around 800 meters from the river bridge. As we walked to the station, the khalasi was putting out the kerosene powered lamp that lit the shunt signals during the dark hours.
On reaching the Dhulghat station, we handed over the visit/photo/video permission to the station master"s office. We were informed that the first train, the southbound Ratlam - Akola 457 passenger was expected very soon and the track was blocked for that movement.
At the Spiral
We rushed back to cross the river bridge once again, a little more confidently this time. We got into the Sumo and retraced our path till the "char ka akda" was visible on our side. The road is nearest to the spiral at the south east corner of the tracks - this can be seen in the wikimapia link mentioned earlier.
Soon we were all over the tracks and moved fast to cross the long viaduct towards the west end as the 457 passenger was expected from the lower level rails are at that end. The workmen"s gang that was doing maintenance work on the viaduct told us that the spiral was somewhere else and that we were at the wrong place. This added some doubt in one"s mind till the Hindi "Spirral" sign confirmed that we had arrived at the correct place.
We positioned ourselves at different locations and waited for the train to arrive from Dhulghat. On this day, we were to spot only 4 trains before the light faded.
Lalam and I were at the ground level below the spiral"s viaduct. And soon enough we could hear the horn and the burbling sounds of the YDM 4 hauling the train through the lower level. After going below the viaduct, the train looped the spiral and crossed the viaduct at the higher level following the permanent speed limit of 10 kmph.
Once the train passed, the valley returned to the natural pastoral sights and sounds of the area - the clang of the cowbells, buzz of flies, whooshing of the mild wind, gurgling water, clouds of yellow butterflies, aimless determination of dragonflies. As the day climbed on, heat began to turn up a little but not too much.
For the next expected train, Lalam and I climbed onto a small hillock that gave us a wide view of the entire viaduct. 'Old Man' Vivek climbed on the adjacent hillock.
While our hillock had a small hut and a clear space to sit, Vivek was totally exposed. He had no shelter from the sun and stood amongst sharp, long bladed grass accompanied by armies of biting ants which put his railfanning resolve to a test - something that he passed with flying colors! We could see Poochi on one of the escape platforms of the viaduct and Sachin in a similar position on another location, all waiting in the hot sun for the train to arrive.
We had not eaten any breakfast and that added to the discomfort. Lalam and I could share a packet of dates that were in my bag. Dates are invaluable to stave off hunger pangs (or boredom!) and a few packets of this stuff should be in the railfan"s sack at all times.
As we waited, a friendly local person (the ex-Sarpanch of this area) came on the hillock to give us some coconut pieces. This was the "Prasad" of the deity from a temple in the surrounding fields. He told us about derailments near the viaduct a few years back. These were difficult to clear due to the remoteness of the site for the rescue equipment. He looked alarmed when we told him that the line could close soon due to gauge conversion and the BG could take a different alignment.
After a long wait, the northbound 458B passenger arrived in front of us. Lalam and I had the ringside seat to the action from some altitude as the train passed from right to left. As soon as the last coach clattered across the spans, we picked up our stuff and ran through the fields to the railway line. We barely positioned ourselves as the 458B passenger arrived at the lower level and moved towards Dhulghat station.
Food break and the post lunch walk
There was a considerable gap between these two trains and the next lot of movements, a food break it was. We left the viaduct to sit under a shady tree near the Sumo and dig into the sandwich, thepla, roti, pickles, jam that we had got with us from home. This was a nice brunch with loud railfan talk with great company. The large sized black ants were everywhere and anywhere we sat we were apparently in their marching path.
Poochi points to a particularly giant specimen crawling on my neck and then asks me not to move as he wants others to see the insect in the attacking position - thanks a lot !
Poochi discovered that his camera"s battery needed charging and drove back to the village with Lalam to find a friendly electricity point. The remainder engaged in banter and even snoozed a little - crawling ants be damned!
Railfans by their nature are restless lot. Poochi and battery charging team did not return for quite some time and the others decided to walk the spiral tracks. The diameter of the circular section is around 1.8 Kms and we decided to do the full circle. The track curves almost continuously through the dense, beautiful jungle. We walked across a wide stream that whose flow is checked by three small bunds of varying heights. Eventually, we returned under the viaduct and decided to reach the eastern end by walking below the spans.
This involved crossing a shallow stream - the faster one walks across, the less do the shoes get soaked! We touched the stone pillars of the viaduct with reverence as they rose some 50 feet in the sky while supporting the delicate red coloured steel spans. This was the opportunity to put oneself in various situations to imbibe the spirit of the place. We did a similar exercise when we visited the Panval viaduct.
We had not found Poochi and Lalam since they had gone to the village earlier - but there they were, downstream of the flowing water. This area had no mobile cover so we were out of touch for all this time.
This was a good time for Sachin, Venkatagiri and Vivek to strip to their undies and have a bath in the stream.
While these guys were horsing around in the water, Lalam and I decided to have another go round the spiral - eventually arriving back at this spot in around 20 minutes. Got my shoes wet once again.
The two trains in the evening
By now it was time to take positions for the last two trains of the daylight. Reached the other end below the viaduct spans - and yes, the shoes went in the drink for the third time.
The evening sky started filling with signs of rain clouds. It was slightly worrisome as on the way back we still had to ford two rivers and slither across the deeply rutted muddy sections.
Having seen the earlier trains from the lower level, this time I positioned myself on the top level at the Akola end of the viaduct.
We could hear the southbound train arrive at Dhulghat station. But this was halted to allow the northbound passenger first.
The 470 passenger arrived at the top level from Akola and rolled noisily on the viaduct. We observed that the assistant driver in the loco exchanges a green flag with the guard while on the viaduct. Soon the 470 moved through the loop and went under the viaduct towards Dhulghat.
We now awaited the last train of the daylight the southbound 469 passenger that departed from a distant Ratlam at 0600 hrs. By now the light was rapidly fading and we could feel the moisture laden air blowing sharply at us. The setting sun highlighted the tall, shapely clouds in magnificent colours.
I was at the top of the tracks on the viaduct and as the light was low, I captured the 469 on video. The YDM 4 was making the most gorgeous sounds as it attacked the circular climb to the viaduct.
The 469 was the first train that I spotted on the majestic viaduct while on the top level and I have some good photographs to remind me of the unforgettable fleeting frozen seconds.
As the train cleared the viaduct, it was sadly the time for us to leave the Dhulghat area. On returning to the Sumo we discovered that Satish and Lalam has found new spots near the road that showed the last two trains approaching the spiral and over the viaduct in a different perspective.
We bundled into the Sumo and reluctantly sped out of the forest area. Fording the rivers and crossing the mud patches was not so much of a hassle - we were delayed at some spots by the hundreds of cattle returning home! At one turn on the forest road, we had to brake sharply as a pair of peacocks was strutting ahead.
We were late and as expected the gates at the border of the forest area were closed. It took some time to locate the person with the key to let us out.
We were informed that the southern portal of tunnel between Wan Road and the Spiral is very near the first gate on the way out - something that needs exploration on a future trip.
This tunnel and the converging road can be seen in this satellite view
The rains hit us as we turned into the highway back to Shegaon. 2 hours later, we arrived into Shegaon and we demanded to be led to a hotel with good conveniences and of course "wet" facilities - "good" by the local standards of course.
Soon a long table saw eight people cheering over bubbly brown liquid and digging into hot food, discussing what else but railways.
After the meal we were back at Shegaon station waiting on a low platform for our train (2136 Nagpur - Pune superfast) to arrive. The station had no audio announcements for the regular stream of trains in both directions so there was an element of surprise as each train arrived. This may be a busy trunk route but this was still a small wayside station and some of the charm remains.
Venkat from BSL left first on the Pune bound Azad Hind Express, it made no sense for him to wait for the 2136.
Our train arrived more than 30 minutes late. My reassuring memory through the fatigue of the day was the watching the arrival of the eye pleasing shape of a WDG3A howling into the station on the dynamics.
We all piled into the S2 sleeper coach. Mumbai/Nasik gang was getting off at Manmad taking Poochi with them. Pune gang would obviously sleep it through. We said our goodbyes before turning in.
What a fantastic sleep I had - woke up only when we arrived near Ahmednagar. Plenty of high speed running with rocking motion, cool rainy weather and the loud diesel thrash assured great rest.
We arrived at Pune almost to the minute bring to end of an absolutely fabulous trip.
Everything went so well. Of course, it helps to have only loose expectations, so everything would nearly go well. As we had a large group, the expenditure was a very frugal Rs. 1000-1200 per person.
As mentioned earlier, the success of this trip has emboldened us to do even wilder trips. All you need is that roving eye during the railway journey which says "I want to go there".